Immigrants Museum vs. Locals
Lower East Side divided
BY BRIAN KATES
April 28, 2002, New York Daily News [article].
Lou Holtzman sat with his wife Mimi on the stoop of his renovated tenement building at 99 Orchard St. the other day. The steps, the door, even the windows of the building were plastered with signs:
"The Museum Will Not Take My Home" and "Eminent Domain Abuse."
A tourist, climbing the steep stairs of the lower East Side Tenement Museum next door at 97 Orchard St. stopped to absorb the message. The museum guide, an earnest young out-of-work actor, shook his head. "It's a pretty nasty dispute," he said.
More like a lower East Side blood feud.
The museum - devoted to celebrating 19th and early 20th century immigration and "the dreams that motivate today's immigrants" - is determined to expand into Holtzman's building, which shares a common wall.
Holtzman is equally determined not to let it happen.
After he rejected a $1.35 million offer for his property, museum founder and CEO Ruth Abram sought to have the state's Empire State Development Corp. condemn it "for the public good" under the laws of eminent domain."
The agency, which held hearings in Jan-uary, is expected to render a decision early next month.
The high-stakes battle is riddled with irony.
It pits the museum against Holtzman - whose immigrant East-ern European Jewish ancestors moved into 99 Orchard St. in 1910 - and his partner, Peter Liang, the Hong Kong-born owner of the Congee Village Chinese restaurant at 98 Allen St.
The restaurant, di-rectly behind Holtz-man's building, recently expanded into its basement at a reported cost of $2 million. The move provided jobs for about a dozen immigrant workers.
The dispute has galvanized the neighborhood's political power base and divided Orchard St. shopkeepers and tenants into pro-museum and pro-Holtzman factions. As one resident put it, "It's the immigrant museum vs. the immigrants, the newcomers vs. the old-timers."
Each side has a lot at stake.
The 14-year-old museum - a federal landmark billed as the oldest structurally unaltered tenement in the city - has re-created the apartments of actual tenants who lived at 97 Orchard between 1863 and 1935.
It gets 90,000 visitors a year, including many school children, and wants to grow to serve 200,000 - the projected spillover from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Acquiring 99 Orchard would allow the museum to install a wheelchair-access elevator, expand exhibit space and put its reception center and lucrative gift shop, which is now down the block, under one roof.
Access for the handicapped is essential to cementing the museum's relationship with the National Park Service and the key to getting vastly increased government funding, which last year totaled nearly $404,000.
As museum attendance grows, so does its revenues - and Abram's salary, which jumped to $103,000 last year from $70,000 in 1998, according to museum tax filings.
For his part, Holtzman says, "I want to be the first in four generations of my family to make money out of this building."
For 32 years he had a recording studio in the building. He recently closed that and renovated the apartments for his family and 15 tenants. He says he invested about $1 million and gets a hefty $1,700 a month for each 325-square-foot apartment.
Local entrepreneur Liang says Congee Vil-lage's business has skyrocketed since he expanded it into Holtzman's cellar.
Condemnation would put about 20 immigrant workers out of a job at a time when the Asian American Foundation estimates about 1,000 Chinese New Yorkers were left unemployed by the World Trade Center attack.
Congee Village manager Eric Li lost his former job at the Windows on the World restaurant in the Trade Center after Sept. 11, and it took him five months to find this one.
"Everybody is really scared," said Li, who came to the U.S. 20 years ago and is now a citizen. "Restaurant jobs are really hard to find now, especially downtown and especially for immigrants."
Both sides are taking the dispute personally.
Holtzman refers to Abram as a "nouveau tenement phony" who is trying to "rob me of my family's immigrant dream and put at least a dozen hardworking Chinese immigrants out of work."
He has his own Web site replete with strident anti-Abram rhetoric and a photo album of his Orchard St. ancestors.
Abram disputes Holtzman's four-generation attachment to the building and brandishes city records revealing that 99 Orchard St. was at times vacant and reported abandoned.
Abram says, "I can understand why Lou is upset." But, she says, "The tenants will be handsomely compensated" if they are kicked out.
By law, compensation is set by a judge after an independent audit. As a commercial tenant, however, Congee Village is not legally entitled to compensation.
In such a legal action, each side trundles out a raft of charges and counter-charges. They present conflicting inspection reports and bales of inconclusive Buildings Department paperwork.
Abram says Holtzman's renovations and the expansion of the Congee Village were "done illegally" and caused "cracks and irreparable damage" to the museum.
But no legal action has been taken. Holtzman, whose building is now owned by 98 Allen St. Realty in a partnership with Liang, was issued a certificate of occupancy and the Congee Village expansion went forward.
The museum proffers letters from 95 "supporters of acquisition of 99 Orchard St." Many are from out-of-state preservationists and museum officials from as far away as England. Some of those who sent letters told the Daily News they did not know the museum's expansion would involve taking over someone else's property.
Many of the museum's local supporters cited its contribution to cultural development of the area. Others want to stop the tide of gentrification on the lower East Side.
The Rev. Edgar Hopper of historic St. Augustine's Episcopal Church on Madison St. wrote: "The owners of 99 Orchard St. are bringing in wealthy people from outside the neighborhood to pay astronomical rents. They further marginalize this neighborhood's immigrant residents, creating another facility that most of us can't own or operate."
But neighborhood business associations and Community Board 3 oppose using the condemnation to ex-pand the museum, saying it is a matter that should be resolved in court. Local politicians concur, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Sens. Marty O'Connor and Tom Duane.
Duane said, "I strongly insist that we do not remove from the market needed housing units, even for the most worthy of causes."
Silver wrote to the Empire State Development Corp.: "As important as the museum's contribution is to our neighborhood, so too is it imperative that we protect the rights of tenants and landowners when they are threatened."
A majority ruling of the nine-member development board will decide the issue, but agency attorney Joe Petrillo makes it appear the decision already has been made.
"We see the [museum's] expansion as a worthwhile public objective," he said. "Economics is not the driving force. This is a civic project."
Holtzman says, "My building, which has been in my family for generations, is home to real people leading real lives in a real lower East Side. My friend Peter Liang's restaurant is not nostalgia. It is not historic. This is real life."
Copyright 2002 Daily News, L.P.
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